Perfume Junkie

(So I thought this article was kind of Christmas appropriate, given that in the familiar nativity story, the Three Wise Men bring Jesus the precious scents of myrrh and frankincense.)

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‘Perfume is like a parenthesis, a moment of freedom, peace, love and sensuality in between the disturbances of modern living.’

(Sonia Rykiel)

‘To create a perfume you have to be the servant of the unconscious. Each idea evolves and transforms, but there should be a surprise with each note.’

(Serge Lutens)

Perfume is a strange part of our everyday lives that acts as a channel of sorts. The word perfume comes from the Latin per (through) and fumum (smoke). This conjures the image of an ethereal essence which, like smoke, carries through some kind of message. We might think of it as an unspoken means of communication, a way of emitting some essence of ourselves to those who happen to pass close enough to catch a glimpse of our secret aroma. One that releases itself only from certain spots on the body, places we have chosen to let the scent develop. I love the way that glossy magazines and figures of high fashion talk so indulgently about perfume. It’s like poetry: a complete decadence of revelry in words. It’s like reading a wine list and falling for a string of adjectives rather than the taste of the drink itself. Rich, smoky, full-bodied, bursting with dark fruits. The poetry of advertisement aims to seduce. So too does perfume: it is a seduction not only in a sexual sense but also a seduction of self. A seduction of memory.

I was probably about nine or ten years old when I made my first forays into the world of fragrance. Certainly, I was still at primary school. I used to sneak into my Mum’s bedroom while she was eating her breakfast downstairs and try on what she had. Her dressing table was never cluttered with pretty glass bottles (more like heaps of unusual jewellery and hair mousse), but she did have a couple of classic Body Shop numbers. There was of course the famous White Musk, which I started wearing often. I liked the soft but heady smell it had, not too overpowering as a floral but sweet enough to stir your senses with its blend of ylang ylang, jasmine, rose, musk and lily. Then a while later, she gave me a bottle of spray she didn’t want, this time the Body Shop’s Oceanus. Or was it Ocean Rain? – no, I am getting confused with an Echo & the Bunnymen song! It was actually quite a strong one, though it wore off fairly quickly. I suppose it was meant to smell sharp and fresh like the ocean, and actually it was quite a nice one to wear at school where P.E. and stuffy classrooms were never conducive to pleasant aromas.

We were of course, forbidden deodorant in P.E. This was at secondary school, where everyone was aware that they had, y’know, adult bodies now, bodies which tended to sweat after exercise (even the half-hearted exercise we attempted in class). The teacher would storm into the dressing rooms at even a hint of spray being used, demanding that the most suspicious looking pupils empty their bag in front of her to reveal the contraband goods. She must have hoarded a whole treasure trove of Charlie and So…? and all those other brands we clung to as adolescents. On such days I would hide my little bottle of Oceanus in a glasses case at the bottom of my bag and spray it liberally once the coast was clear. A sea tide of refreshment filled the room. The contents of that bottle seemed to last forever; in fact, I think I still have some left in my bedroom.

The first perfume that was gifted to me was a miniature bottle of Burberry Touch. It’s a pretty intimate scent, threading together notes which include jasmine, raspberry, pink peppercorn, vanilla and oak moss. It sounds sweeter than it actually is: this is a strong scent but also has an air of sophistication. It feels grown-up and even a bit masculine (perhaps that’s the base notes of Cedarwood and oak moss?). I was fourteen when I got it so it ran out fairly quickly, but I now have a big bottle of it on my dressing table.

I also, at quite a young age, acquired my mother’s bottle of Yves Saint Laurent’s ‘Paris’. Launched in 1983, this distinctive scent was meant to capture the spirit of Paris with its heady blend of Damascan rose and violet, which after hours of being on your skin transforms into English rose and whispers of mimosa, sandalwood and musk. There are other beautiful notes in there: orange blossom,  amber, jasmine, hawthorne, heliotrope. It’s so complex that I’m still working out whether I actually like it or not. I wore it all the time until I was about sixteen. It’s far too grown up a scent for someone to be wearing at that age, but somehow it matched my wearied spirit. It felt almost exotic, a smell from far away. Something about it matched the impressionistic notion of Paris I had; a Paris which shimmered with the seductions of beautiful art and mysterious, moody people. It was certainly a smell which took you out of the dreary realities of Maybole, if only for that first spritz in the morning. The pale gold bottle with its crystalline, faceted surface and satisfyingly chunky feel still has pride of place on my shelf back home. I’ll spray it every now and again – what’s left of it – when I feel the need for a bit of escapism or nostalgia.

I like to think that when I’m using perfume I had years ago, I’m speaking to some secret old self, one that got lost in the ethereal tangles of time and change and forgetting. For Christmas two years ago, I asked for a bottle of Chloé perfume. Chloé was the first ‘proper’ fashion fragrance I bought for myself, when I was fifteen, in the Christmas sales of that freezing winter of 2009. To this day it’s definitely still one of my favourite scents. Along with Miss Dior Chérie (the orange one), which I also had as a teenager, it’s a romantic scent, sparkling with pretty florals and a dab of French sophistication. Both bottles are adorned with a ribbon to signify the femininity and lighthearted spirit they intend to convey. Chloé is quite a strange and unusual floral, with rose at its heart, honey at its base and the tartness of lychee as its top note. The blend is very smooth and does not induce headaches like some other more couture brands; it is at once instantly recognisable and also quietly luxurious on the wearer’s skin. When wearing it, you want to be riding a vintage bike through some sunshine street in Paris, where all the lamps light up for you, and your destination is a quiet picnic in the park, or a date with a good paperback under the canopies of a Montparnasse café. The bottle is quite short, almost stumpy in comparison to the tall thickness of Burberry Touch, but this makes it easy to cup in your hand to apply. It sits prettily on my dressing table, even with only a few dregs of scent left in the bottom, amid bottles of glitter nail polish and fragments of hair ribbon. If I had to pick a ‘signature’ perfume, it would be Chloé; a friend once texted me saying she was spraying it in a shop and instantly thought of me, which was sweet.

When I got my second bottle of Chloé, the scent instantly evoked that feeling of being fifteen again. It wasn’t an entirely bad experience, it was a taste of having that smallness, that protected enclave of a childhood world again. Or at least, the experience of being on the brink between the world of childhood and the uncertain future of adulthood. Perfume, I suppose, makes an industry of Proust’s ‘involuntary memory’: the idea that under certain conditions, one is transported back to a clear, distinct memory. Not wilfully, but through some item containing the ‘essence of the past’, whose sensory associations stir up the scene of some personal history. For Proust, eating a tea-soaked ‘madeleine’ cake recalled a childhood scene where he ate such a snack with his aunt. For me, spraying Chloé makes me think of warm radiators and school mornings in the cold pits of winter, or getting ready to perform in jazz band concerts, sweating under the hot lights. Leaning against the window of the 361 bus, reading Margaret Atwood. Floating through Ayr on the way to college, stopping always at Debenhams to spritz on their testers. I’d spray the little pieces of cardboard they provide you with and slip them in my bag, so that all my notebooks smelled of my favourite perfume. Sometimes my friends and I would spend an hour or so trying on all the perfumes, until we left smelling like we’d fallen through some vat in a Dior factory, causing everyone in our near vicinity to sneeze violently. I still enjoy doing that, although these days I set my sights on the counters at House of Fraser.

Strangely enough though, the older I get, the more I’ve switched to simpler scents. Part of this is a side effect of student stinginess, but I also like the freedom of buying several scents and being able to choose between them, to suit the weather or the seasons. I guess perfume is just something I tend to waste my wages on, the way that others waste them on Asos, cigarettes or vodka oranges. I have too many Body Shop Eau de Toilettes to count. There’s Chocomania, a very rich and some might say saccharine rendering of lush dark chocolate – perfect for those gloomy winter mornings when already you’re craving your bed and some hot cocoa. The distinctively tropical Coconut, which is, admittedly, more Bounty Bar than fresh jar of cold-pressed coconut oil. Then there’s the clean bright tartness of Satsuma or Strawberry, refreshing for summer. The milk chocolate and almondy sweetness of Brazil Nut. Honeymania, which does what it says on the tin and makes for a perfect late summer scent. I suppose, at less than £10 each, these perfumes make great little gifts or stocking fillers, which last a surprisingly long time. You could mix and match your scents (I like the sound of chocolate orange, brazil & coconut or honey & strawberry), and the small light bottles make them portable for your handbag. And with Body Shop (I swear I’m not a brand ambassador!) there’s always the positive that everything is ethically produced, usually from Fairtrade ingredients.

In a pricier range of perfume, I recently revisited one of my favourite childhood smells, Penhaligon’s ‘Bluebell’, which I got as a present for my 21st. When I was a very little kid, my dad brought back from a trip to London a velvety purple bag full of Penhaligon’s samples. They had enchanting names, like Elixir, Gardenia, Elisabethan Rose, Levantium (oh to have a perfume with the top notes of saffron and absinthe!). The one that stuck with me was ‘Bluebell’, which felt the most quaint and old fashioned of all the scents. The bottle, for one, is gorgeous, a little bit Art Nouveau, a little bit of simple prettiness. I could easily imagine myself, smelling it now, as a little girl running about in a field of bluebells. It’s not over-sweet or stuffy; it reminds me of the kinds of luxurious scents that would be spritzed around in early twentieth century department stores. I think of Cassandra and Rose in one of my favourite books, Dodie Smith’s beautiful coming-of-age novel, I Capture the Castle (1948), as they wander through the fairyland of such a store in London and marvel over the bluebell perfume. You see, there’s more than just chemicals and packaging to perfume; it always has some kind of rich cultural and personal history living in its notes.

bluebells in Culzean woods

bluebells in Culzean woods

***

Do you remember your first science classes? Most of those memories are probably enriched by the strange smells concocted from an uncertain mixture of suspicious substances. The rotten eggs of sulphur, the acridity of various nitrates. What stands out most for me was a lesson where for some reason we were experimenting with burning different types of foodstuff over our Bunsen burners, to measure reactions to starch or something. Somebody’s Pickled Onion Monster Munch made the entire classroom smell like a Chinese restaurant. The process of perfumery, while aiming for more delicate blends of scent, follows, of course, a similar (but infinitely more sophisticated) chemical process. A perfume will blend natural sources – flowers, fruits, wood, roots, gums and resins – with synthetic productions of those ingredients which don’t produce their own oils naturally, for example lily of the valley. An intriguing guide to the complex scientific process through which these raw ingredients turn into perfume can be found here. I especially like the sound of the enfleurage step, where ‘flowers are spread on glass sheets coated with grease’. Over time, the grease absorbs the scent of the flowers, like a leaf absorbing rain water, just as expression collects the precious oils of various fruits. Alcohol and water are used to distill and preserve the fragrance. That’s why you should be careful not to spray perfume on your eye, or an open wound – or an open fire, for that matter.

Interestingly, like champagne or wine, a ‘fine’ perfume is left to ‘age’ to let the blends develop. Maybe this is why Chanel No. 5, for instance, is such an iconic symbol of ultimate luxury. Its yellow-gold colour always dazzles in department store Christmas displays, but it also reminds one of a pale whisky or dark champagne. Like alcohol, it is intense, maybe even difficult to stomach. Infinitely seductive… complex to create…

Perhaps, like aromatherapy, there is a system to the choice of various scents and flavours. A science to how different people are attracted to different things. While some like a fresh burst of citrus, others revel in the dark sweetness of the likes of Thierry Mugler’s Alien perfume (not a fan). We can all guess that lavender makes you sleepy, lemon is awakening…but maybe there’s more to it all than that. A curious interaction of emotion, memory, desire, sensation… Maybe, after all, it’s the cold December air that led me towards my latest perfume purchase, returning full circle to my first White Musk perfume, only this time with the Body Shop’s newest fragrance, ‘Red Musk’. With its fiery bottle which blends amber, red and black, this Eau de Parfum combines the smouldering notes of tobacco, pepper and cinnamon with a layer of spiced musk. With cinnamon, it’s a dark, shadowy twist on a festive fragrance. Moreover, it’s about time perfume embraced androgyny, as this scent does with its hints of tobacco. Gone are the feminine florals of summer. So while I might be accused of being a hoarder, stashing my perfumes like a witch hoards her bottles of potion, maybe I can justify buying this particular perfume because anything that makes you feel warm (in a flat with single glazing) has got to be good, right?

The Dreaded Dissertation: What I Learned

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It’s that little thing at the back of every undergraduate arts student’s mind: the dreaded dissertation. You find yourself at a Fresher’s Fair in the grand halls of some ancient university, poring over a prospectus for your dream course. There’s that word ‘Assessment’ and then, if you follow down the page, the words ‘Senior Honours’ and ‘Dissertation’. The percentage, length and allotted time period will vary between universities and courses. From my experience, it seems English Literature is fairly unique in its allocation of just one semester to complete your 8-10,000 word dissertation. Most other people I’ve spoken to tend to get two semesters, from September to March/April, to write their academic ‘masterpiece’.

Well, it’s not really a masterpiece, is it? It’s basically just several essays woven into an extended argument. Sounds simple enough. The trick is, they all say, to find a topic you really love and stick with it – if you manage that, then writing and researching will be a breeze. For some people, this part is easy. They’ve been waiting their entire degree to write about queer tropes in Medieval dream visions, the gender politics of Harry Potter, or, as Sylvia Plath’s Esther Greenwood prepares to write her thesis on in The Bell Jar, twin motifs in Finnegans Wake. For others, picking a topic is perhaps the hardest bit. I fell into the latter category. The advice we are always given is read as much as you can. Devour everything. Make notes, talk to lecturers. So in my junior honours year, I picked the courses that I suspected would be most up my street: American Literature 1900-Present, Modern Literature 1890-1945, Modern Literature 1945-Present and Literary Theory. All courses I would highly recommend to anyone in second/third year thinking ahead to picking next year’s honour’s courses. I suppose the whole time I was tracing vague themes that threaded themselves through my favourite books on these courses: textual effects of the uncanny, pastoral modes, madness, poststructuralist subjectivity, psychoanalysis, psychogeography, as much Derrida as I could even slightly get my head around.

In the end, my dissertation interest fell on technology, as I was seduced by a very strange novel on my 1945-Present course: Tom McCarthy’s C. In a way, it’s an encyclopaedic novel which picks up on all of my favourite themes. A novel which, at the level of both form and content, weaves together questions of modernity, the avant-garde, wireless technology and theories of networked society and subjectivity. It’s a novel haunted by the flickering presences of insects, war, Freud, Joyce, Kafka, Ballard, Marinetti; a novel which inhales and exhales as many intertexts as it can possibly breathe in. A novel which disturbs with its themes of incest and violence, its lack of a strong sense of humanist ‘character’, but enlightens with mini-lectures on entomology, Egyptian history, the workings of various technologies. There are also bouts of dark humour that keep you sane throughout the narrative, along with its beautifully crafted imagery. McCarthy cleverly invokes the emergent technological communications of the early twentieth century to comment on our present condition in a world saturated with wireless signals and the ever-present dominion of the Internet, which is not really external to us but rather an inherent web through which we live our daily lives and experience our desires.

mccarthystory_1700554f

We had to submit our dissertation prospectus right after our exam period in May of this year. That was a stressful time; even though these prospectuses aren’t binding, it’s still difficult to come up with a semi-logical argument and assemblage of texts when your brain is still fried from months of exam revision. Still, it’s good that we were forced to think about it early. I spent the first couple of months of summer rereading my primary texts and thinking about some ideas I wanted to develop. By August, once I’d returned from seeing family in England, I suddenly hit panic station. In a month or so, I’d be returning to uni and then it would be a matter of weeks before the deadline. I thought of all the things that might threaten my ability to complete the deadline in that time. Being called for Jury service, work, deadlines for my other course that semester (Modern American Women’s Writing), a freak spell of perishing weather, my laptop dying, losing my pen-drive, falling into the dark pits of writer’s block or depression – the worries dragged on. Thankfully, these things either didn’t happen, or only happened to a perfectly manageable degree. In fact, it turned out to be possibly my favourite semester at uni.

You see, there’s something very rewarding and liberating in being charged with your own project. There are no specific guidelines for your particular topic: aside from the annotated bibliography and the final submission, you set your own deadlines; you decide the scope of your topic, the texts you want to read; you aren’t harrowed by the prospect of a final exam which may necessitate the memorising of quotes from every last piece you find yourself reading. Of course, it varies from supervisor to supervisor your experience of all these things. They are there to give you advice, to offer you ideas for further reading, but everyone goes about it in different ways.

So throughout August and September, while we were being blessed with an unusually bright summer, I found myself in the pits of the library almost every day, trying to get my head around all the theory I was planning to use. I read countless journal articles, chapters from monographs, books on or by the likes of Freud, Derrida, Deleuze and Guattari, Friedrich Kittler and Bernard Stiegler. Interviews with all my chosen authors. I jotted down pages and pages of notes, filling up a little sparkly notebook I’d bought to encourage me to get started early. My bibliography was already totting up nicely with tons of references. I was putting together a plan. It felt good, to feel motivated enough to work this hard.

Luckily, I managed to keep the momentum up throughout the semester. I wrote the dissertation originally split into three large chapters, the first two comparing various texts and the third focusing on C. It was easy to write (early mornings in the library or in bed) with my personal harsh deadlines always in mind. If I finished the thing early, I could breathe easy again. Fuelled on green tea and Dairy Milk chocolate, I got most of my dissertation written by Reading Week (mid-way through term). The problem was, my word count had gotten waaaaaay out of hand. I thought this was okay; just write now, edit later. But it’s kind of impossible to cut out as many words as I had. I tried rewriting the middle chapter over Reading Week and all I succeeded in was cutting the odd paragraph and making my prose sound better; there was still some serious trimming to be done. I went to my supervisor and pleaded my word count woes. Her excellent advice was to pick one – just one - chapter and stick with that. Now that’s a terrifying thought when you’ve just spent four months researching and writing on four primary texts that you’re no longer going to use. Nevertheless, it was something I had to do; I felt that to condense my argument as it was would jeopardise the quality of my analysis. Maybe one day I’ll go back and re-work my discarded material for a Masters. It’s a thing we all have to go through as Lit students, getting the balance between variety and depth. Fitting in both theory and close reading. In the end, I chose my third chapter on C and completely rewrote it with smaller chapters. Time will tell if that worked out okay.

Sometimes I think back to the process of dissertation writing we went through in sixth year at school, writing our Advanced Higher dissertations. Admittedly, they were half the size: English Lit at 4500 words, Modern Studies at 5000. You got all year to write them and in theory, there were more opportunities for help. Still, although I worked consistently throughout the year on both, there was still that last-minute panic dash to sort out small things: referencing problems, formatting issues, those evil little things that you think will be okay but come back to bite you. I remember the day before the Modern Studies one was to be handed in, my teacher phoned my mobile to tell me he just opened it to read and noticed that there were footnotes missing, or just floating around my document. So I had to get the bus back from college and traipse into the school that night at six o’clock to fix it. Similarly, last Tuesday night I found myself at five to six (and I needed to be somewhere else at six) in a tizzy at the library, surrounded by heaps of messed up paper and broken hopes. I thought I’d finished it, proofread it fifteen times (and got others to proofread it) but reading it again I was still finding things that had mysteriously disappeared, moved, or simply needed replacing. The bibliography giving me the wrong page numbers. Queue a mad dash from my computer to the library printers (over and over) as I kept replacing the mistake-ridden pages. This day was perhaps the most stressful in five months of working on the dissertation. No kidding, give yourself as much time as possible for formatting and proofreading. Word processors will be the death of me.

Maybe this is all hyperbole; after all, I got my dissertation in over a week early. What a great feeling, although it’s only now that it’s hitting me. It’s hard to grasp how much of your mind is occupied by your dissertation until you’ve done one yourself. Until you’ve handed it in. Even now, I still get names and references flashing through my mind and I worry did I put that in the bibliography? did I remember to mention this theory? where did that quote go? It’s really difficult to let it go.

Nonetheless, it’s not all fear and stress. In the end, I loved my topic and can really see myself going back to it, rewriting and expanding it in the future. Your dissertation is one of the most satisfying pieces of work you’ll ever produce at uni. Scrolling through the finished document, it feels good to see all that prose stretched out over many pages, and know that it’s all yours. You wrote it. You should be proud of that, no matter what mark you get. Sure, there will be times when you want to hide under your bed or a desk in the library and cry, when you want to fling your books out the window or delete every last silly word you have written, but in the end you have to break through the pain and just get it written. Accept it and let it go. If you get writer’s block, spend ten minutes free writing on anything at all that’s irrelevant to your dissertation. The weird person sitting opposite you in the library, for example. This should help to get your ‘writer’s flow’ back. Moreover, chocolate helps (indeed proves invaluable), as does a supportive friend (and/or flatmate). There’s a warm sense of ‘we’re all in this together’ amongst fourth year English students, particularly as the dissertation is such a lonesome project, so it helps to talk to someone about your ideas. Also, obviously, as everyone always says, a good topic makes for a good dissertation. But either way, it will be okay. You have to learn to be good with timekeeping, to narrow your argument and find ways of connecting and condensing it. All very useful skills for any kind of future critical writing you might engage with. And out of all the stress, the feeling of finishing your dissertation makes all the hard work worth it. So to anyone who has any kind of dissertation to write either this year or next, I say don’t dread it, but look forward to it.

Mushrooms at Dusk

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She found the quality of light at this time of year awfully confusing. Dull grey in the morning, silver streams of mist that lick the sky like butter from your fingers. The twilight haze of three o’clock, where the amber lamps come out like fireflies and shadows gather ominously across the sky. Maybe a wisp of some foreign wind, darkling in the fade towards four, where she’d be sitting at her window, wondering. It was the time of year to tend to the garden, pile up the heaps of leaves, clusters of rotting pinecones and acorns that clotted in the soil. The earth was hardening for winter, and soon the frost would come, eating into the grass like a glittering poison. She’d see it as she dressed in 7am sunlight, the whitish mist making crystals at her window. Everything still and beautiful.

It was a luxury, to be home now. She waited for the seasons to change, right at the hinge between autumn and winter, before she made her journey. Asleep on the train, dreaming of being small again, so small in the bubble of childish memory. She could smell the peanut crunch of M&Ms, the sparkling particles of someone’s perfume. Soon, soon she’d be home. The place grew tighter every year, as she grew fatter on the milk of new years and their offerings of plastic joys and flattened dreams. She stood in the kitchen, watching the steam swirl out of her first cup of tea. No new mugs, of course. Later, she would press her face to the window and her breath would fog a dewy canvas, and with one finger she’d draw pentagrams, like she always used to. There’d be the rubbery squeak of skin on glass.

No-one was at home now, just her in the wide archives of the house. In the dusty shelves that made her sneeze, and the picture postcards, she imagined a thousand phantoms. They were pretty phantoms, ornamented with the smiles of children and the pinkish sheen of memory. They did not speak to her, but she was somewhat comforted by their silence. What counted was the presence, the ghosted sigh of a skin-prick or coldness. She would wait till her parents got home and read books, in that nook between the banister and the cabinet on the landing. Imagining herself as Jo in Little Women, taking great bites out of Braeburn apples, lines of prose flying before her eyes. She did not fit there as well as she did as a child. The wood cut into her arm as she read the strange poems covered in gold-frosted dust. Somebody had been spraying glitter in the study, making Christmas decorations. That was a long time ago.

***

Morning came like a murmuring of starlings, and slipped away again just as quickly. Her body was heavy, her limbs tree-trunks of aching muscle. She felt she had been away again, and the new hours were another return. She worked them over in her mind, pondering the way their shapes formed with her hunger and sleepiness. Moulding, slowly. At the window she stood and yawned. Some machine was whirring away, making her coffee. The smell dissipated through the room with its warm opulence, stirring her brain to life. Yes. She peered closely into the garden, staring at strange dark shapes which clumped in the fronds of long grass. Most peculiar. Later she would investigate. She ate her breakfast of burnt toast with the radio humming in the background, speaking of a war somewhere, and then advertisements for hair salons and special restaurants. Onto her toast she spooned pools of blackberry jam that looked like crushed rubies, and the soury sweetness bit at her tongue between her teeth. She chewed loudly and grinning, the wine-coloured juice staining her lips. Afterwards, she left everything on the table: the crumbs peppering the wood like a pixie’s debris.

It was almost enough just to be here, out of the shouting sirens, the madness of the city. Home, she supposed. She sat at her laptop, fingers clicking ruthlessly at the keys. She was writing a message to someone, a sad story about why she would no longer remember them. She would keep it saved, locked deep in her computer’s hard-drive, and then one day send it. When she had the person’s address. When the time was right; which it wasn’t just yet.

Everything stretched out like the languid yawn of a giant, just a long morning and the gape of afternoon, uncertain evening. The sheerness of time was narcotic, rendering tiny signals that pulsated in her brain. She was at once sleepy and electrified. She rushed up the stairs to check something in her room, but her phone was dead and all that was there were her clothes strewn across the carpet. She messed around looking for things to read. She highlighted her favourite words in the dictionary. It was a big dictionary, and a whole hour shed away like the flake of skin that layers the top of a scar. She remembered only a handful of this vocabulary: sapphire, salience, stardust, Saprotrophic. She was cleaning the window with lemon vinegar, making sweeping lanes in the film of dirt. A thin moon peered out of the weary sky like a wink. Saprotrophic…she had forgotten something. Ah…the mysterious clumps in the garden! Of course, they were mushrooms, only mushrooms…

She pulled on her mother’s wellies and trod out into the garden, up the concrete steps. The air was very still; mournful, even. It smelled of wood-smoke, and somewhere she could hear the crackling snaps of burning tinder. Plumes of it rose against the blueish dusk in dark arabesques. She sighed contentedly. The clumps were even more abundant than she’d thought; the whole garden was teeming with their shadowy figures. She knelt down to inspect some. She thought of the honey fungus they’d found out in a forest once, clinging prettily to a rotting stump. In the sunset glistenings that glazed the silhouetted trees, she had thought she could almost see fairies, fluttering above the mushrooms. They were lovely mushrooms, with their smooth peachy caps. Her friend had said they were edible; but you could not be sure with wild ones, so they left them alone, like a living relic, noting their path. The toadstools she saw now in the garden were a putrid brownish colour, etched with black lines and little white spots. They were ugly in a kind of otherworldly way. Ethereal, even.

Her knees were going numb from bending so she stood up and did a lap of the garden to get her circulation back. She was recalling things. The party where a boy brought out a sandwich bag of suspicious-looking vegetables, frying them on somebody’s pan. She’d stood in the doorway of the kitchen, her mind full of cheap red wine, watching the way the little things unfurled in the buttery oil, their spindly stalks stretched out like tentacles, their heads jiggling like jellyfish. As they started to sizzle and wilt, they let out a curious, bitter smell. The boy had shared them among his friends and then they had disappeared for most of the night. Later, one of them was hanging upside down in a tree at the village park, and he was reciting streams of Byron’s poetry. Sometimes, she still heard his voice, even now, reverberating through the dark.

The cold was coming out of its slumber and creeping into her bones. She stood still, wrapping her cardigan tight around her. She crouched down again and dug her nails into the earth. A weird feeling gripped her, a feeling tinged with homesickness. She pulled nothing out of the ground, no trace of seed or root. She stood up again. The quietness made her feel smaller than ever, but her mind was huge and overbearing, stretching itself across the matter of the garden. It all glared in her vision like the close-up shots of a dream. She wished some sound would break the silence. A bird-cry, even. But the little creatures were so quick with their wings that they made no noise as they flew between branches. She was trembling now, remembering everything.

The fungus at her feet now looked like the severed heads of something. She had to breathe.

If only a car would start in the drive, or a plane fly overhead…something, something!

They say that magic makes you happier. And she thought there was a thing she could do, before going inside again to the womblike comforts of heat and sleep. She brushed through the grass with her wellied feet, and stood in the centre of one of the fairy rings. It was a near perfect circle. She stared first at the mushroomy clumps at her feet, then up at the sky. It bore the dramatic flashes of an expressionist painting: great bolts of violet wounded the blue, and rivulets of yellow broke away from the horizon, approaching amber and spiralling, spiralling. Then she found again the moon. Brighter now, it was a sharp crescent, the fold of an eyelid. She waited, waited. Her body was cold and her skin prickled like coral on a sea-washed rock.

The clouds began to gather, slowly at first then fast like an army.

You could smell it in the air, the sourish dampness that held as a breath.

She closed her eyes and the rain came. She felt the initial sprinkles that bounced off her skin, the cries of birds as they darted into the hawthorns for shelter. Drizzles of silver slashing the landscape. A downpour of water and chilly air. She stuck her tongue out for the cold shock and the sharp taste. The crescendo sound of it showering louder, coming down thick and heavy from the west in globules fat as teardrops. She opened her eyes and her hair streamed down her face like seaweed, clinging to the marble of her skin. She felt it surge within her, the waterfall sounds of this injured nature. A grumble of thunder. Something stirring in her chest, a rush in her pulse. Almost like someone was watching her, a million things flashing around her. Her laughter was lost in the cavernous sound of the rainstorm, another echo pirouetting through the chambers of memory. And as she stood there, the fungus and mushrooms soaked up their nectar, before crumpling to a wasted doom. The rain had poured through and through her, and she felt hollow and purged as a mermaid tossed from the sea to a tomb. And she was the still point in the tempest around her, her body soft and sad with its sickness. This was it; home was just this, wild and true, the beatific glow of a hullabaloo.

Mould

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It was a moon-scape she saw, peering into the mug in her mother’s study. Yes, a moon-scape with little lumps of perilous blue and grey, seeping into one another. Or maybe it was another kind of space terrain: she imagined the ground of Pluto, with its eye-like holes and fissures. She gave it a shake, and watched the particles break up and drift away, flotsam on some unreal ocean. A polluted ocean; maybe the earth’s oceans in a hundred years’ time. They told her in school that the world was filling up with waste and one day everything would melt away, like those paintings of dissolving clocks she saw when her mother took her to the museum. You could already tell it was happening, her teacher had said, the way that it gets so warm these days. The mildness of winter. It wasn’t right.

Well, the moon wasn’t right either that night. No; she could not stop thinking about what she saw in that mug. Another world, was it? She wished she could go back and count the dots, knowing that if she did she could start to chart this new universe, and in knowing it better she could sleep. She could enter its landscapes, drift across it with the powers she had in her dreams. Her mother put a sachet of lavender under her pillow and she could smell it through the cotton, soft and sweet…but it was not enough distraction. She needed to know what she had seen. But her mother might hear her and send her back to bed. It had to be worth a try. Sucking in her breath, she tip-toed back into the study, closing the door quietly behind her and flicking on the light. It was an energy-saver bulb, that took ages to properly glow. So she stood in the dull orange light, watching the wall till it got brighter. Then she would pick up the mug and see. Then she would know again.

Finally it was bright enough and so she went to pick up the mug…but this time, oh how the smell caught her! It was sharp and evil like the stench of seaweed, only worse, like the most rotten thing in the world, slowly fermenting. Yes, she smelt it and was knocked backwards almost. But it was fascinating. She let her nostrils quiver and sniff deeper as she held the mug to her nose. The she looked into it again and saw how the dunes and lumps had mushroomed and the blue was turning greenish, or maybe that was just the duller light. Still, these were definite changes. And she was thinking of the clumps of toadstools she’d seen in the school playground, while they were out measuring soil quality and watching the teacher bending in the grass with a thermometer. They were big brown flat things, ugly and intriguing, and she knew that some of them were poisonous, and some of them if you poked them let out a puff of steam. She wished she could touch these mushrooms but the thought of putting her finger in the mug was repulsing. It was kind of like a horror movie, she thought, where they showed you somebody’s festering wound, only it never looked quite real. Still, you would not like to touch it, it was just sort of funny to look at. No, she would not touch it; instead she shook it again, and this time the dunes did not dissolve, but she could see little fissures rippling across them. Her stomach turned over as if emptying something, and she felt a surge in her gullet. She put the mug down and breathed in deeply, trying to rid herself of the awful smell that clung to her like a disease.

She wondered what it was that these microbes loved so much about her mother’s tea. She considered if they’d accept her into their colony. Like them, she was partial to a glass of milk, but maybe not tea, unless it was laden with sugar. She wondered how they’d order themselves, scattered about as they were like that. Bulbous, growing over each other. It would be a ruthless economy. She sat down on the comfy office chair and span around slowly. The queasiness was leaving. She liked how all the objects rushed around her, melting into long white and orange lines. She stifled a giggle; she must not wake her mother up. She whispered stories to the mug. Telling them about the boy she wrote a letter to once in class and the time she left her homework on a bus. Soon she would say goodbye to her mother. She knew that it could not be long before she was ready to join them. They would be like ants, or the tiny people in Gulliver’s Travels – Lilliputions – running all over her body. Only, they were so small you could not see them. You could just imagine them, growing and multiplying, all over her skin.

They made the moon rocky and bumpy, like that boy whose skin was cratered with pimples. She had seen on television once two fat ladies in white coats scrubbing away green things from the corners of a bathtub. She and her mother didn’t have a bathtub, but sometimes she saw things come out of the plughole in the shower. Great streams of wiry hair that poked out, or smeared themselves upon the porcelain. Once a huge spider. She heard its legs patter and she screamed, and her mother tried to lift it out with a gardening trowel. Sometimes there were little black seeds all over the bath, and the first time she thought maybe a plant had vomited up all its babies (in class that morning she had been drawing diagrams of sepals and stigmas and filaments and seed-pellets), but then her mother told her it was just exfoliating beads from some lotion she had. She tried the lotion and it made her skin burn, but it was not unpleasant; kind of like the scratch of dry sand. It left a pinkish blotch on her legs. She was wondering if the moon was like that: all pastures of dry sand. Were there lakes or ponds or waves? Trees, even? In the mug she could not see any trees, and the only waves were from when she rippled the sticky liquid with the swirl of her wrist. She thought maybe if she lived there she’d have to invent some more things, to keep her interested. There would be a gift shop, for one thing. You could buy t-shirts with maps of the land on them, with close-up details of the blue-green growths and the tea-stains that ringed the china walls. It was like a whole continent splayed out, with all the countries slotted together, their landmasses enveloping each other. A strange thing.

She would take the mug into school on Monday, for show-and-tell. It was the right thing to do. Everybody else would bring in their cinema tickets, their remote-controlled helicopters, Pokemon cards, a book they had read over the weekend. And they would talk about themselves, nattering away about this thing that had brought them  their childish joy. Then she would take to the stage, like the prime minister on the telly, clasping her precious mug, and she would tell them how she had found the moon. At first they would laugh, she recognised that, but then they would realise how clever she was. How amazing was her discovery. She giggled just thinking about it. But I must let it rest, she reflected. After all, she needed to let her colony expand, for the spores to pile up higher upon one another until they were spilling over the edges of the mug. She wanted her colony to be huge and impressive. I mustn’t let them escape. She took a postcard from the wall – it was a painting of a lemon and a teacup by Francis Cadell – and she placed it over the mug. The moon was safe, and its surface would continue to bubble and grow in their new warmth and darkness. So she tip-toed back to bed and lay awake, her mind floating around this wondrous space. Each star was a point of contact, a possibility.

And she spoke to the stars, even as she jumped between them, as you jump between chairs and tables and sofas when you play ‘The Floor is Lava’. Each one told her a story, and she basked in the glow of all those words weaving a tapestry around her. Soon she could slip into sleep, soon, soon, soon…she closed her eyes to a new darkness, felt the warmth of the space beneath the sheets. The smell of mould dissipated from her brain, and now there was only silence, the scent of lavender, wafting in delicate waves…

When tomorrow arrived, it was Monday, so she got dressed for school and went downstairs. To her horror, she saw the mug up-ended on the draining board. What on earth…? Mummy? Her mother came down to boil the kettle and make her porridge, but was startled to see her daughter crying so early in the morning. What is it, darling? She was already late for work, and starving. She threw her handbag on the table and brushed down her jacket. What is it? she repeated. The child was pointing at something next to the sink. Mummy! she wailed, you’ve killed the moon! 

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Punk, Politics and the Personal: In Praise of the Manic Street Preachers


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One of my earliest memories is being at my dad’s old flat and messing with the hi-fi player to get attention. It would’ve been around about 1998, the year the Manic Street Preachers released their album, This is My Truth, Tell Me Yours. Maybe my dad and my brother were watching rugby on T.V or something, and I’d read all the books I’d brought with me. Well anyway, I thought of a keen plan to wind them up. I turned on the hi-fi and skipped to my dad’s favourite song (at least, his favourite song that wasn’t anything by U2!) and let it play. Loudly. And then I put it on repeat. And then I stopped letting it play out; I just played the first bar or so then pressed repeat and played it again, as if it were on a loop, inducing hypnosis. Incidentally, those first few notes are inscribed into my memory. The song was ‘You Stole the Sun from My Heart’.

Since then, I’ve drifted through life with the Manics not far from my consciousness. When I was about fourteen, I discovered some of the darker tracks from The Holy Bible online and basically that was me sorted for emotional outlet. What better lyrics do you need as an existentially-frustrated teenager than: ‘self-worth scatters, self-esteem’s a bore’? However, it’s only this summer that I’ve come to properly listen to the album in full. By pure coincidence, it just so happens that this year marks the 20th anniversary of The Holy Bible’s release. I was one year old when it came out. Funny, how it still rasps with fresh energy, all these years later when a whole new generation are beginning to appreciate it. It has songs about capital punishment, anorexia, the Holocaust, prostitution, aching nostalgia, suicide and (metaphorical) political sex scandals. At times it can be painful to listen to, with its throbbing, angry bass-lines, and packed-in lyrics which scream razor-sharp poetry: ‘Your idols speak so much of the abyss / Yet your morals only run as deep as the surface’ (‘IfwhiteAmericatoldthetruthforonedayitsworldwouldfallapart’). James Dean Bradfield is a master at the smashing (in the literal sense of smashing), punkish guitar rhythms and sailing solos that almost make your brain hurt. At the same time as being able to throw out all those lines, a million a minute. It’s brilliant. I can only imagine how amazing it must’ve felt, back then, to go out and buy this brand new album and listen to it on a Walkman and feel, more than ever, electric and alive. And angry at everything.

The Holy Bible is now considered an early 1990s classic, to be filed alongside the (considerably cheerier) offerings of 90s Britpop; for example, Oasis’s Definitely Maybe (1994) and (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? (1995), and the holy bible of grunge, Nirvana’s Nevermind (1991). While the rest of British music was penning the likes of ‘Live Forever’, ‘Rock and Roll Star’ and ‘Park Life’ – drunk anthems for the boozy masses (and still we love them, if only in secret) – the Manics were deconstructing contemporary society (class, political injustice, historical trauma) and existential crisis through the spike-edged modes of punk, pessimism and fury.

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Moreover, as its title suggests, The Holy Bible is more than just an album: it’s also a text. A network of references and quotes, provocative enough to set you on a trail of philosophical and literary discovery. The voracious listener is able to devour even more information by following up the sources scattered over its songs, learning at the same time as participating in this performance of knowledge. Camus, Foucault, Plath and others haunt this album, through direct references but also aesthetics. There’s Plath’s visceral emphasis on the body and its various contortions and distortions, its ruptures and vulnerabilities: ‘a tiny animal curled into a quarter circle’ (‘Die in the Summertime’). The title of track ‘Archives of Pain’ pays homage a chapter in David Macey’s 1993 biography of French philosopher Michel Foucault (who wrote Discipline and Punish), and the song itself considers changing societal values with regards to punishment, although it is ambiguous as to whether the song advocates a return to capital punishment, or a refusal of the glorification of serial killers. Lyrics such as ‘prisons must bring their pain’ and ‘the centre of humanity is cruelty’ offer a bleak, Lord of the Flies rendering of humankind’s essential lust for destruction, its need for revenge. While Nicky Wire and Richey Edwards collaborated on its lyrics, Richey seems to claim it as a ‘pro-capital punishment song’  (see Harris 2004), while Nicky told music magazine Melody Maker: ‘everyone gets a self destructive urge to kill, but I don’t particularly like the glorification of it. The song isn’t a right-wing statement, it’s just against this fascination with people who kill’ (cited in Power 2010). The ethical ambiguity of this song adds to its disturbing quality, its fury that cannot quite be pinned down.

The album also crackles with various audio samples, a ghost chamber of voices which include a fragment from an interview with the mother of a victim of Peter Sutcliffe (the 1946 so-called ‘Yorkshire Ripper’):

I wonder who you think you are
You damn well think you’re God or something
God give life, God taketh it away, not you
I think you are the Devil itself

And when you hear it, you’re chilled to the bone, before being thrown into the savage world of ‘Archives of Pain’. There’s also a quote from the author J. G. Ballard talking about his controversial novel Crash (1973), which flashes in as a soundbite on ‘Mausoleum’: ‘I wanted to rub the human face in its own vomit, force it to look in the mirror’. Mausoleum is a song inspired by a visit to Auschwitz, to the barren landscapes where concentration camps once existed, but still linger. The chorus is simply:

No birds – no birds
The sky is swollen black
No birds – no birds
Holy mass of dead insect

It’s painful and bare, so that listening to it, you imagine a dark carcass of a sky, heavy with the traumatic void of its past. The ‘dead insect’ which serves not only as an image of the barren remainders of death, but also perhaps as a reference to those swarms of people who were so brutally dehumanised during World War Two. And Ballard’s quote captures everything about The Holy Bible: it’s visceral, it forces you to confront the shadows of your own self, and of humanity. It provokes an abject reaction, through its images of self-harm, dismemberment, corrupt sex and violence. At the same time, it ‘obliterates your meaning’ (‘Mausoleum’); it shatters all attempts to make sense of the traumatic events it references. The conventional linear progression of melody and song and perhaps even narrative in an album is broken up with intertexts and ghosts, and perhaps that’s why it still lives on today. Unlike, perhaps, an Oasis album, which is nostalgically evocative of more simpler, hopeful times, it doesn’t feel in the least bit dated. Its endless trail of references add shadow and depth to its meaning.

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But perhaps, listening to it now, you feel that it’s haunted most by Richey Edwards himself, the band’s fourth member who penned (Nicky Wire has claim to the other quarter) 75% of the lyrics. Following bouts of depression, self-harm and an eating disorder, Richie disappeared one morning in January 1995, just before he and James were due to visit the U.S. on a promotional tour. In February, his car was found abandoned at a service station near the Severn Bridge. Since then, almost twenty years on, still no evidence or trace of Edwards has been found. Even though he was pronounced officially ‘presumed dead’ a few years ago, the aporia of his disappearance remains. Of course, this allows fans to string mythological tales about his reappearances around the world. The lack of closure is perhaps what is most distressing: the not-knowing, the sense that at any time he could come back into his friend’s and family’s lives. Listening to The Holy Bible, Richey’s personal suffering is of course inscribed in every line, even though most of the lyrics reach a universal, almost transcendental pain at times: ‘I’ve long since moved to a higher plateau’ (‘4st. 7lbs’). And then you hear him when listening to the Manics’ later albums, which are still full of Richey’s presence/non-presence in the band: ‘You keep giving me your free air miles / What would I give just for one of your smiles’ (‘Nobody Loved You’), and ‘As holy as the soil that buries your skin / As holy as the love we’ll never give / As holy as the time that drifted away / I love you so will you please come home’ (‘As Holy as the Soil (That Buries Your Skin)’).  Richey’s bandmates even dug out his old notebooks, with permission from his family, to use as the lyrics for their 2009 album, Journal for Plague Lovers. Maybe the most painfully intimate Richey track is the final song on this album, ‘William’s Last Words’. Arranged by Wire, it features soft guitar strokes and his crooning, deep voice singing about voyeurism over lines of loss and death that almost sound a melancholy joy:

Isn’t it lovely, when the dawn brings the dew?
I’ll be watching over you
Isn’t it lovely, when the dawn brings the dew
I’ll be watching over you

It ends with the bittersweet lines: ‘I’d love to go to sleep and wake up happy, / Wake up happy’. It’s a stripped-back Manics; it’s simple but stays with you, innocent and chilling, like the blood-spattered Jenny Saville artwork that adorns Journal’s cover:

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In this album we also see again that familiar combination of theory and fiery politics, as the opening track references Noam Chomsky’s book, Rethinking Camelot: JFK, The Vietnam War, and US Political Culture (1993):

Riderless horses on Chomsky’s Camelot
Bruises on my hands from digging my nails out
A series of images, against you and me
Trespass your torment if you are what you want to be

The sense of our powerlessness to media and mediated disaster is captured here in just a few frenzied lines. ‘A series of images’: the sense of personal and political conflict flashes past us in handfuls of words, just like the way that war plays out through the flickering light of our television screens. Chomsky’s book documented a critique of Kennedy’s foreign policy in Vietnam, and these themes of military funerals, fallen soldiers, geo-political conflicts and human sacrifice in war are all invoked in a handful of words, powerfully delivered as ever by Bradfield. We might think also of ‘Kevin Carter’, the trumpet-tinged single from Everything Must Go (1996) which documents the story of ‘Bang Bang Club’ and Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer, Kevin Carter, who famously suffered from the haunting scenes of all the killings and suffering he had witnessed (and indeed photographed) and eventually committed suicide. The Manics, not just with their military-inspired outfits, are consistently attuned to themes of war and death.

The mysterious story of Richey and the Manics is of course seductive, and perhaps part of the enshrinement of pain that goes with their mythology, but they are also an incredibly uplifting band. They kick the listener into political engagement, which is refreshing in a time of political apathy (or the complete neglect of politics in most pop and rock music, with the exception, perhaps, of Muse’s Matt Bellamy and his crazy conspiracy theories). Songs like ‘The Masses Against the Classes’ and ‘Design for Life’ are songs about working-class experience and class politics in the post-Thatcher era. Of course, being from Blackwood, an ex-mining town in Wales, the Manics are all familiar with the catastrophic effects of deindustrialisation upon communities. Seeing the life and soul of a town being lain to waste after the rich won the class-wars of the miners’ strikes. Their eleventh studio album, Rewind the Film, closes with the song ’30-Year War’, which references the Battle of Orgreave, the Hillsborough disaster, coverups at the BBC (and oh how there are many – from Savile to Scottish Independence) and has the refrain, ‘the old-boy network won the war again’. It’s depressing, but realistic in our time of austerity. Has much has really changed from the Thatcherite legacies of the early 1990s, when the Manics came into being? Arguably, with the rise of UKIP and a weakening Labour party, the ‘working-class’ opposition to neoliberalism faces an even deeper well of apathy.

Source: walesoline.co.uk

Source: walesoline.co.uk

On the subject of far right politics, funnily enough last year the far-right English Defence League (EDL)  tried to appropriate the Manics’ 1998 hit ‘If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next’ for promoting a demonstration in Birmingham. The song features the pretty much crystal clear lyrics: ‘So if I can shoot rabbits / Then I can shoot fascists’. As well as a lesson in irony, it is probably a reflection on the EDL’s stupidity as much as anything else to choose a song inspired by an anti-fascist slogan used during the Spanish Civil War. The Manics have always been associated with political controversy, from Nicky Wire’s sharpish (‘remember, all men should castrate themselves’) quotes to the band’s iconography (famously, a 1994 performance on Top of the Pops featured Bradfield wearing a ‘terrorist style’ balaclava, albeit with his name scrawled across it playfully like a name sewn onto a school jumper), but in this case, the EDL’s appropriate was too ridiculous and they had to sue.

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This autumn, the Manics announced that they were finally ready to do a Holy Bible anniversary tour. Although my dad and I jumped on Ticketmaster at 9am, we were unable to grab any tickets for the elusive Barrowlands date, which apparently sold out in two minutes.  I’m really gutted (especially as it would have been a welcome reward for finishing uni coursework), as I can’t really imagine a gig that would have quite the same emotional resonance. Nevertheless, the fact that they’re now touring the album means they’re playing it more in general across various forms of media, which is always a great thing. I must admit, it was very satisfying to see James, Nicky and Sean performing ‘Revol’ on Later…With Jools Holland. When Jools interviewed them about the song they were going to play from the Holy Bible, Nicky sort of giggles and says it’s about dictators engaged in metaphorical sex games, some clever idea of Richey’s. There’s an irony that he’s certainly aware of. How commercialised music’s become, how such a song just doesn’t have its place in today’s music world. It’s telling that the two songs chosen to broadcast on the evening show were the poppier (but no less the better!) offerings from their new album, Futurology (2014). The new album is bold, flamboyantly European and even features that rare delight of Nicky singing on the chorus of a leading single, ‘Futurology’. It’s bold – maybe even bombastic - but the boldness is put into relief by the acoustic introspection and self-deprecation that characterised their previous album, Rewind the Film. They just keep reinventing themselves, and that’s the best thing about the Manics: they don’t do paltry repetitions, or parodies of their former selves. Their lyrics stick with you and gather new meanings as each album throws your deepest assumptions into question.

Artwork from 'La Tristesse Durera' (Gold Against the Soul)

Artwork from ‘La Tristesse Durera’ (Gold Against the Soul)

You could argue that the Manics have the paradoxical personality of a child: that strange urge to both disappear and gain all the attention in the world. To ‘walk in the snow and not leave a footprint’ (‘4st. 7lbs’) but also pen the extroverted Krautrock of ‘Europa Geht Durch Mich’, which throws itself into electronic music but also the increasingly frenzied political debates surrounding Europe in Britain right now. And like the child that I once was, trying to break my dad’s CD player by endlessly repeating one of their most successful songs, they go for attention. Their confidence isn’t the laddish arrogance of their Britpop bedfellows, but the endearing ambition and glam aesthetic of their early years and the strong direction that characterises most of their career (maybe Lifeblood was a slip-up, but I think it deserves more than straight dismissal…). It’s an oft-forgotten fact that the Manics’ single ‘The Masses Against the Classes’, was the first British chart No. 1 in the new millennium. It’s a single that begins with Chomsky: ‘The primary role of the government is to protect property from the majority and so it remains’ and ends with Camus: ‘A slave begins by demanding justice and ends by wanting to wear a crown’. Maybe this vicious cycle of capitalist desire and inequality will continue through the millennium, but by god let’s hope there’s still artists like the Manics around to do all they can to critique it. And if that’s not enough for you, then the fact that Nicky Wire went to the Brit Awards wearing an ‘I Love Hoovering’ t-shirt (and the man seriously does love housework) really should. What could be cooler than a Situationist statement which isn’t for once pure hipster irony?

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basically Nicky Wire is amazing & makes me want to wear leopard print again

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Harris, John, 2004. ‘The commitments’ in The Guardian, Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/music/2004/nov/21/popandrock [Accessed 7.11.14].

NME, 2013. ‘Manic Street Preachers take legal action against the English Defence League’ , Available at: http://www.nme.com/news/manic-street-preachers/71397 [Accessed 7.11.14].

Power, Martin, 2010. Manic Street Preachers: Nailed to History (London: Omnibus Press).

Oranges for Bonfire Night

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(from a Creative Writing Society freewrite with the prompts ‘fireworks’ and ‘oranges’)

She remembers the days when she and her brother popped over to the neighbour’s house for Bonfire Night. She’d climb over the garden wall, wearing her wellies and her dad’s itchy jumper that came down to her knees and a hat her mother had pulled over her fringe. They’d play with the children next-door because they were good friends and the same age, more or less. Even though it was pitch dark in the November night, they’d dance around the garden, shrieking and playing tig or hide and seek while they waited for the fireworks to be set up. They were cheap fireworks, bought from the local store, which ordered them from some chemistry enthusiast in the city. This was, of course, before The Internet.

She can’t remember his name, the man next-door; the dad who told the kids off for laughing too loud and who’d sneak off for fags in the greenhouse while his wife did the washing up. She remembers the blur of his bearded face. His yell as he stepped back from the firework he’d just set up. She remembers the mum better; the mum used to bring out steaming mugs of soup and carrier bags loaded with oranges. She remembers standing in the cold bright air, peeling with the stubs of her fingernails the rind that came away like thick flakes of skin. Biting into the soft flesh as a flame-coloured Comet rippled above her. The sour sting of the juice squirting in her eye; the sweetness seeping over her tongue. Stickiness on her fingers. She’d toss most of it away, into the rhubarb patch. She wanted to save her appetite for the chocolate log and lollypops that awaited them inside.

There’d be the rockets, soaring and screeching in her ears like banshees, sizzling in her belly. The wheeeEEeeeee like electricity. She hated them, but they were a thrill. She’d look up to catch them but they’d be gone already. Then there were the pretty ones. She read their names off the cardboard box, discarded on the porch: Crosettes, Dragons’ Eggs, Ice Fountains and Blossoms. She watched them go off with the other children, trying to identify each one as if they were flowers in a biology textbook. Only, they were always too quick; their beauty dazzled her vision and then evaporated. There were the ones that overflowed like ocean spray, showering and spitting flickers of white and silver, like a jeweller soldering a giant diamond. Rainbows would spread out across the smooth sky, raining colours across the tall trees at the back of the garden. Her favourite was the Catherine Wheel. It took ages to set up, but it was magical. It spiralled like a wild thing from the pole of the washing-line, sparks flying around it with the craziness of broken machinery, or hypnosis. She adored the Catherine Wheels. They made her feel strange and unreal, as if she were looking into an abyss.

After all the fireworks were gone, the children were doled out sparklers, which they were only allowed to use with gloves. The sparklers let them write their names in the air, as if they were inscribing their thin identities into the vast constellations of the night sky, the atoms of the air around them. She misses how back then in the country you could always see the stars and the sky achieved a proper dark. In the city where she lives now the sky is always a murky brown, the colour of Coca Cola or dirty rivers.

She used to hate how eventually they’d have to go inside. She used to want to stay out in the garden forever, sucking in the lovely coldness of November night. She hated how the sparklers had to be chucked into water buckets, where they’d snuff out with a quick hiss. The adults would always check that they hadn’t burned their little fingers. She remembers the faint char marks that stained her gloves. Remainders. She found those gloves, only a few months ago, when she’d gone home to help clear the house. They were in that same yellow jacket she used to wear, and even just touching the plasticky fabric brought back glimmers of firework enchantments. But the gloves were full of holes, the stitches became undone in her hands. Everything was to be given away, sold or donated to charity, after her mother died and now that the house was to be sold as her father left for business in America.

He’d phone her from new places and his voice would crackle over the phone like a fading sparkler. She closes her eyes and still she smells the warm soup, the tickle of gunpowder.

And oranges. She remembers the oranges. She never liked oranges.

Memories from MSN

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Few things define the noughties more than MSN Messenger. The spinning pair of green and blue icons, surrounded by butterflies. The friendly window which popped up every time you logged onto the family computer after school, to ‘do some homework’. Forget Facebook, MSN was basically the main communication channel for my generation growing up, and I feel like its recent closure deserves some elegising. Yes, incase you hadn’t heard, MSN (rebranded since 2005 as Windows Live Messenger), is no longer with us. Microsoft forced its clients to give up the nostalgic platform and merge with Skype.

I remember getting my first email address, when the world of social media as we know it was still in its infancy. My cousin helped me set up my first hotmail account, and I was delighted to find that I could call it anything I wanted. I could express my (proto-manic-pixie) weirdness with some cool and random name I made up. I opted for ‘strawberry_bonfire’, an email address which incidentally I still often use (although not for LinkedIn or job applications…). It felt like a rite of passage, typing in my home address for some anonymous computer to process and setting up a password and making an email signature. People could now contact me. I was contactable. I’d have my own inbox. More importantly, I could set up a Neopets account! And an MSN account!

There was something unique about MSN’s interface which sets it apart from the likes of Facebook messenger, or Snapchat. I suppose the emphasis on conversation is key here. Each conversation opened out into a window of its own, although you could group your chats in ‘tabs’ for ease of moving between conversations. There was of course, the odd awkward moment when you accidentally sent someone a message reply that was intended for another person. Gossiping via MSN was a tricky business, which required organisation and attention.

Everything was a beautiful network of colours and messed-up symbols. It took a good five minutes to work out who was who when you looked at your contacts list, especially if your friends had recently updated their names. There was a whole sequence of tildas, dashes and asterisks to sift through before you could pinpoint your pal’s pseudonym or elaborately embellished screen name. I suppose that’s another reason why (not so) secretly I still prefer MySpace and MSN to Facebook…there’s that element of individuality that you don’t really get in the highly structured systems of more contemporary social media platforms. Sure, they’re probably more resistant to coding bugs because of their relative standardisation, but I miss the quirkiness of an amateur’s attempts at html on a MySpace theme, or a smear or rainbow lettering constituting someone’s MSN name. You came to know people not by their boring old real name and photograph (as on Facebook), but by some random avatar and distinctive font. That one friend you recognised when they popped up saying ‘hi’ by their enduring use of cyan-coloured Comic Sans or violet Monotype Corsiva as much as their name. There’s a nice sense of cosiness that comes with this, of online personalities being fabricated, selves being formed in the endless conversations that would eat into hours of an evening. Back then, we were too young to go to the pub, too remote in the country to find something ‘real’ and useful to do like join a sports club or an art class. Even if we did do extra stuff, MSN filled in the rest of our time, extended our social lives.

Then there was the personal message. This could range from ‘ugh doing maths homework’, to ‘Amy You Are My One <3’ and the ambiguous ‘=/’ which would result in a barrage of people asking ‘what’s up?’, only for the person to reply, ‘nothing’. Your personal message also revealed what you were listening to, if you had your iTunes hooked up. This of course stopped you listening to hideously embarrassing music (in theory) and listening to what you thought would impress other people. It was also a good indicator of people’s moods. God knows I wouldn’t start a conversation with someone if they were listening to Secondhand Serenade or Hawthorne Heights…

Then there was the ‘nudge’ function which was brought in later on. The bane of your existence if you were trying to coordinate MSN with homework or downloading or streaming YouTube videos (basically, my ancient computer would crash every time I received a nudge), the nudge would make your screen shake and force you to pay attention to the nudger’s conversation. Luckily you could only send a restricted number within a certain period of time. There was a time when MSN conversations were very precious, back in the pre-Broadband days when you dreaded that fateful phrase from your mother, ‘I’m going to unplug the internet because I need to use the phone’. You had waited so long for that bloody diallup connection to ring through and now you had to hastily sign off with a quick ‘g2g xxx’. To be fair, a lot of conversations basically went like this:

Person A: Hey x
Person B: Helloooooo

Person A: Howz u?
Person B: nb, u?
Person A: gd thanks
Person B: wubu2?
Person A: just hw and stuff, u?
Person B: yeh same

Person B: g2g, byeeeee xxx

Nevertheless, a lot of us had our first breakups, friend fallouts and heart-to-heart confessions over MSN. That, I guess, is where a lot of the nostalgia comes from. Staying up into the small hours on a Friday night having a moan about life to someone, or helping them through something they were going through. You could send them helpful web articles or songs to cheer them up (it might take 2 hours for the song to arrive though), or a funny picture (memes were growing popular). Emoticons back then weren’t the loathsome ‘emoji’ phenomenon they are now (god I sound like an old woman) – they were generally small and unobtrusive (unlike Apple updating your iPad and putting in an emoji keyboard without telling you…) and often served as a welcome substitute from =] or ‘lol’ being added to the end of every message. And then if you were going on holiday you could put the little tropical island or plane symbol in your personal message, and people would know that you were now an exotic thing talking to them from the imaginary world of some hotel abroad (with dodgy WiFi connections).

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emoticons! all the emoticons!

MSN was in some ways an endlessly frustrating service, but in a way that’s what made it so good. The game of how to talk to someone you fancied without making yourself look like a stalker (wait at least ten minutes before talking to them after they’ve signed in), of working out whether your matter was urgent enough to disturb someone whose status was ‘Busy’. There was always that weirdo online at 4am who you sometimes wanted to speak to and ask what the hell was up with their sleeping pattern. Then there were the endless difficulties with connection that left you kicking the desk underneath your computer and wishing you had one of those newfangled Macbooks or something (I guess this is where the ease of the latest messaging services comes in). I kept a notepad next to my keyboard for a while and it was amazing the amount of doodling I could do in the time I spent waiting for MSN to load; sometimes it was as bad as waiting for a 3GB installation of the Sims!

Source: Urban Dictionary

Yes, MSN was great for killing time. If you had friends round, chances were you’d end up on MSN, talking to (berating, more like) SmarterChild. SmarterChild was an instant messaging chatbot, a robot who replied to your message with a complex(ish) formula of responses. You’d send it (him?) lewd messages and he’d scold you for being inappropriate. You could ask him a question about your homework and he’d do his best to look up some (mostly irrelevant) answer. He’d do your times tables, and give you dictionary definitions. If you were in a bad moon, you could take it out on SmartChild. Talking to SmarterChild felt that you were outsmarting all those academic people who were worrying about the effects of inhuman interaction on us children. We were outsmarting the robots here.

There’s a lot of talk nowadays about the dangers of the Internet for young people. Schoolchildren are supposed to be educated about staying safe online, about not talking to strangers or giving out personal information. I don’t really remember getting much (if any) education on this at school, other than, ‘don’t give anyone your phone number’. Remember that familiar acronym which haunted every MSN conversation you had with a stranger: ASL? Standing for ‘Age, Sex, Location’, it was (is?), as Urban Dictionary puts it, ‘what stupid people say on chats to learn who you are and where you live so they can come to your house with a chainsaw and kill you.’ Most of the time I would reply ’99, Cat, the moon’, and then block them, but then that’s just me…I always felt MSN was totally safe. It was so easy to block people (the satisfaction of seeing their little icon turn red!) or appear offline so they couldn’t start a conversation with you. The fact that it was a separate console and not embedded within your browser felt more private somehow, and less like your every word was being tracked with cookies, or sucked into the black hole of some governmental data archive. Facebook exposes a lot more information about you than MSN ever did. All you’d get from the average person’s MSN profile was some kooky screen name, a jumble of symbols and song lyrics and maybe a blurry/’arty’ webcam shot of the side of their face.

One of the earliest academics to properly study the effects of online communication on people’s identities was Sherry Turkle. Her book Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet (1995) looked at how people interact via MUDs (role playing games and forums on the the internet), through which they communicated in fictional worlds. I suppose the fantasy-scape of something like Dungeons and Dragons is an example here, but someone with more expertise in what is evolving into online cos-play would surely be able to list many more. Well in this book, Turkle basically argued that such online interactions, which involved the play of masks and multiple identities, were allowing people to develop a postmodern mode of knowledge – they came to see reality itself as a play of surface signifiers, a swirling universe of simulations. Think Baudrillard here, only, Baudrillard getting serious research application (not just armchair academia or The Matrix). Identity becomes a game, a game in which you have some control; as Turkle points out, “One player says, ‘You are what you pretend to be…you are what you play.’”. Simulations basically infect out reality, and allow us to enjoy it like a game, playing out the selves we have created online.

Scene from Chatroom

There are of course, many film and literary representations of the dangers of forging online identities: the thriller Chatroom (2010) stages chatrooms as anonymous hotel rooms, in which teenagers encourage each other to do increasingly disturbing actions in reality, culminating in the most psychopathic character trying to manipulate someone to commit suicide. Jeanette Winterson’s The Power.Book (2000), named after an old Mac computer, delves into the fantasy realm enabled by the Internet, with its chimerical portrayal of a dialogue between two selves (whose names and identities shift). For Winterson, the computer functions as a way of exploring the multiplicity of narratives, the instantaneity of their communication and transformation. Her chapters have names like ‘New Document’ and ‘Search’. Whether she creates a credible Internet Romance (could this be a genre? The Guardian (2000) reviewed it as ‘a virtuoso trip into virtual reality’ ) or a gimmicky spin on vaguely plausible computer jargon is up to the reader. Still, it does link in to Turkle’s ideas about how the Internet has fabricated a postmodern reality of play and possibility.

I’m not sure exactly how much scope MSN offered for that sort of thing. Often, we just used it to chat to our friends as we would in real life. We’d have ‘group convos’ which contained as much shouting (CAPITALS), annoying nudges and confusing dialogue as such a conversation would play out in real life. Sure, maybe we’d open up a bit more online, with the safety of the computer interface. We could tell our secrets to complete strangers, who wouldn’t know our real name and so couldn’t track us down later via Facebook to wreck our lives. We could just block them. So maybe there was a bit of identity ‘play’ there, but mostly it was just an extension of the interactions we had in the park, on the bus, in the playground. It wasn’t a simulated, enclosed environment in the same way a chatroom online is; it wasn’t a specific ‘zone’ – it was a console that you opened up, a kind of tool as opposed to a virtual reality. That’s how it felt to me anyway.

Throughout my teens, Piczo, MySpace and Bebo would come and go, fading into the recesses of an Internet shadow-world that secretly archives every scrap of your self that was once uploaded online. But MSN was faithful, erasing every conversation into the imaginary ether, so that only you could read over previous conversations (if you had ‘chat logs’ switched on; but they certainly weren’t searchable online in the same way your dreadful Piczo account was). MSN was the gateway for many friendships, a forum to vent frustration and a place to play chess with a stranger from America who added you because his cousin knew your friend or something. A place where you got a pleasant kick from signing on and seeing the ghost message of someone who’d tried to talk to you when you were offline. You felt that important. A place of horrific fonts: ‘яσ¢кιи ιи нєανєи, 2кαιι7’ and fondly irritating screennames (my own include ‘Whatsername’ (yes, a riff on Green Day’s American Idiot - I was a twelve-year-old-wannabe-goff) and Maria Magickk (I promise you, I knew people with worse ‘scene’ names than that; also, I thought the double k was a clever reference to the ‘kk’ which everyone substituted for ‘okay’ on MSN. Oh dear.). Now that MSN has been shut down for good in its final resting place and we all have to migrate to Skype (never!), I guess all that’s left for us Generation Y people is the WhatsApps and Snapchats and other gimmicky chat applications that smartphones have brought us. Conversation these days is less about talking and more about sending emoticons and stupid pictures (bah humbug!). For the rest of us, there’s always the excellent nostalgia trip that is the MSN Memories Twitter account: https://twitter.com/MSNmesenger (enjoy).

the dreaded Troubleshoot message

***

Kellaway, Kate, 2000. ‘She’s got the power’ in The Guardian. Available at: <http://www.theguardian.com/books/2000/aug/27/fiction.jeanettewinterson> [Accessed 3.11.14].

Nakata, Hideo, 2010. Chatroom [DVD].

Neopets(!) www.neopets.com [just cause you have to try it]

Turkle, Sherry, 1995. Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet (New York: Simon & Schuster).

Winterson, Jeanette, 2000. The Power.Book (London: Vintage).

Halloween Confessions

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(appeared originally on Medium)

There was a time when Halloween was almost better than Christmas. That was when I lived in a place that had the potential to be haunted. Halloween, I feel, has a spirit that creeps up and metamorphoses with your home. The house that I grew up in is a semi-detached one, perched on top of a drive with Rennie Mackintosh-esque roses cryptically shining from the front bay windows. There’s a skylight window which has always been shrouded in mystery: we’ve never been able to identify what room it belongs to (we reckoned we’d have to knock a hole through the bathroom wall to get into this secret space, anyhow). The outer walls are rough pink sandstone, kind of old-fashioned, romantic, but we have a modern kitchen extension built by former owners.

With its big rooms, (defunt) fireplaces and (rather decrepit) chandelier, it was the perfect venue for spooky parties. We’d drape heaps of fake cobwebs along the banister, from the lampshades, the settee, the windows. In the cobweb there’d be the plastic figures of ersatz rats and spiders, waiting to catch unwittingly in someone’s hair. Half an hour before our guests arrived, we’d turn down all the electric lights and I’d be in charge of candles. We made holders out of peeled tin cans, pierced with holes to make patterns for the light. The lanterns were strewn all around the house and outside in the patio area, where people gathered around a fire we kept crackling in a rusty old tire rim.

I filled the hall with incense and creepy dubstep music playing quietly from an iPod dock hidden in the study, so that you could only hear it thudding quietly if you ventured upstairs to use the bathroom.

There was all sorts of strange food: white buttered toast cut into triangles and sprinkled with crushed salt & vinegar crisps to resemble witches’ hats, Yorkshire puddings filled with beans (cauldrons), suspicious-looking pots of pasta meant to resemble some gorish substance, and lovely pumpkin soup that my Mum’s friend brought in a giant pan. There would also be heaps of various sweets and chocolates piled on every surface, so that it wasn’t long before everyone was hyped up on sugar. Guests would drift in and out the different rooms, sometimes lingering surreptitiously at the bottom of the drive for cigarettes. We were all quite young then, less than fourteen. I suppose we talked and drank and maybe danced at some ill-defined point later on (there was a year when I remember we all had really sore necks the day after, so we must’ve been headbanging…probably to Enter Shikari…). All the teenagers would gather in the bigger room, which had the bay windows and the old computer. One year we even had a strobe. Friends would sift through my chaotic iTunes library, and wince as their favourite tunes were ruined by our rasping speakers.

Mum and I would make fruit punch beforehand, pouring in blood-red cherry lemonade and slices of orange. The real alcohol, however, was stowed away in sleeping bags under my bed. My friends would hide up there to drink before appearing back downstairs where all the adults congregated around the fire and food. One party ended somewhat disastrously. The ‘drink to the line’ approach to vodka-consumption has never really boded well for anyone. Said friend passed out in my bed for several hours and woke up only to vomit straight into my bin. Bless her for good aiming. One of my mum’s friend’s kids happened to be wandering about and saw her in my bed, asking everyone fearfully, ‘is she dead?!’ I was sitting, secretly sipping cider and having a perfectly civilised chat to my mum when her then-boyfriend dragged another friend downstairs — she had her thumb caught in a bottle of wine. There wasn’t much explaining to do there.

In addition to these house parties, there’d be the school discos, with all the necessary alcohol action plan they required. We’d dress up (fairy, witch, Twiggy were my various outfits) and meet at each others’ houses beforehand — usually mine as I lived closest to the townhall where the discos were. So maybe someone would bring a Smirnoff Ice or some WKD, but I never had much stomach for that kind of thing. Too sweet. I’d play that old teenage trick of sneaking the household spirits and refilling the bottle with water to hide the damage (I always justify my cheeky thefts to myself through the logic that my Mum never really drinks and if she was really bothered she’d pull me up about the wishy-washy gold of her depleted Southern Comfort more times than she actually did – sorry Mum! ;) ). The problem is, when I think about how I used to drink it makes me sick! I used to mix together the vilest things: Malibu Coconut Rum, orange juice (with bits in), Coca Cola, Jameson’s Whisky — all in the same (plastic water) bottle. We’d take turns to shot the disgusting potion and then we’d stumble, giggling, down to the town hall, playing tinny music on our phones (Bloc Party, Drive-By Argument, Paramore). Ugh.

The disco itself was always an anticlimax, an embarrassing mix of teachers critiquing the DJ’s music taste (I distinctly remember a P.E. teacher calling up some sixth year for playing the Prodigy’s ‘Smack my Bitch Up’), couples awkwardly winchin and alcohol being sneakily passed around in the toilets. I’d usually leave a little bit early, glowing with sweat and smudged eyeliner, giving myself time to wash all that hairspray and glitter out of my hair before school the next day.

Well, they were good times, sort of. Back then, Halloween still had a kind of magic to it: you could go for walks in the dark around the town and you’d still see ghosts in that carrier bag caught in the spindly branches of a tree. I guess now I have too much freedom, and a walk doesn’t have that same sense of wide-eyed luxury. At uni, Halloween seems to be an excuse for a tacky outfit and a pub crawl. It’s always around deadlines, anyway. After uni, maybe I’ll get back into the spooky house parties and punch-drinking again; but for now, it’ll be pumpkin carving and a night in, reading in some cold dark annexe of the library.

Long Hair: A Love Story

A long time ago, far out in the constellations of mythology, Rapunzel let down her hair. And what lovely hair it was, a waterfall of gold, spilling from the window of her tower. Answering the call of her keeper or lover, she unravelled her braids to form a rope. Rapunzel’s hair, then, provided the connecting threshold, the thread that stitched together her turreted psyche and the world outside. It was also her downfall, allowing her to have illicitly a lover. Her keeper, Dame Gothel, became jealous and cut her hair, and left her to live a withered existence out in the desert. The tale takes us from the lush beauty of a ‘splendid garden’ to the arid desert, where eventually Rapunzel and her lover reunite and find happiness. It’s a peculiar tale of desire, entrapment, revenge, femininity; a tale which sets the scene for wider cultural mythologising of long hair. It’s a mythology that we’re still fascinated with, as the popularity of the Disney adaptation of Rapunzal’s tale, Tangled (2010), attests.

History and myth are glutted with references to the power of lengthy tresses. Take Samson, the Israelite leader who lost the source of his strength when his lover Delilah betrayed him and cut off his long hair. Or the Sif, the wife of Thor, whose wheat-coloured locks were cut off and stolen in her sleep by the malevolent god Loki. After Sif’s husband entered a threatening rage about the hair theft, Loki ordered dwarves to weave Sif a new mane of hair out of threads of gold, more long and beautiful than before. There’s also, of course, Medusa; the monstrous Greek guardian whose hair famously consisted of venomous snakes, and whose eyes turned their onlookers to stone. In his essay, ‘Medusa’s Head’ (1922), Freud suggests that her snaky mane is linked to the castration complex, the (male) fear of having one’s genitals effectively guillotined. Freud’s typically eyebrow-raising essay links Medusa’s head to the female genitals, and the supposed threat of castration a boy experiences if he catches sight of these genitals. Well, apparently, Medusa’s snakes also alleviate the terror of castration, since they provide supplementary figures for the penis, thus filling in the implied absence of castration. And of course, Freud throws in a cheeky sexual pun, as Medusa’s head makes her ‘spectator stiff with terror’, and thus not only turns him to stone but also arouses him: ‘[f]or becoming stiff means an erection. Thus in the original situation it offers consolation to the spectator: he is still in possession of a penis, and the stiffening reassures him of the fact’. Yes, quite.

http://www.google.co.uk/url?sa=i&amp;rct=j&amp;q=&amp;esrc=s&amp;source=images&amp;cd=&amp;ved=0CAcQjRw&amp;url=http%3A%2F%2Frap.genius.com%2F821579%2FAesop-rock-the-mayor-and-the-crook%2FThen-rock-like-medusa-glances&amp;ei=hgxSVMKiNZDwaN3qgMAI&amp;bvm=bv.78597519,d.d2s&amp;psig=AFQjCNEsGHzxRr7-50RvUoDaEL2wpaitkw&amp;ust=1414749689575329

Medusa.

Well, it’s undeniable that literature has tended to represent a woman’s long hair with desire, sexuality and beauty. Take this passage from Book IV of Ovid’s Metamorphoses:

Medusa was astonishingly fair;
She was desired and contended for–
So many jealous suitors hoped to win her.
Her form was graced by many splendors, yet
There was no other beauty she possessed
That could surpass the splendor of her hair–

Yet while her hair made her an object of desire, a thing to be ‘contended for’, the ‘splendor’ of her snake hair also symbolises her multiplicity. As the snakes are full of a life of their own, Medusa cannot be pinned down, her personality is multiple, endless. Her hair is its own being, extending in legend and through history. It is slippery, but also a symbol of her power. Indeed, Hélène Cixous reclaimed Freud’s psychoanalytic pinning of Medusa to advance her feminist call-to-arms for women to rethink their sexuality in relation to language. In ‘The Laugh of the Medusa’ (1975) Cixous critiques the way Freud’s castration complex reinforces the mythologising of Woman as hysterical, as the Unknowable, ’dark continent’. As weak, passive, mysterious. Through writing (extending the lines of multiplicity that we find in Medusa’s hair), women may reclaim themselves, reach out and produce their desires and being through writing. Just as Cixous herself reclaims the mythical figure of Medusa from Freud’s cigar-stained fingers: ‘she’s not deadly’, Cixous argues, ‘she’s beautiful and she’s laughing’.

There is something joyful and exuberant about long hair. Think of the connotations: a young girl skipping through a field of wheat, streaming behind her a cherry red ribbon. An Austen heroine waiting to be the belle of the ball, or the flame of The Little Mermaid’s rippling tresses. It is a distinctly youthful trait, too; a symbol of childish innocence. In Victorian society, only children tended to let their hair down in public; if a girl wished to be seen as a woman or ‘lady’, she must pin up her locks, dress them in ornaments and braids. Letting one’s hair loose as a woman was seen as a sign of wantonness. Thus, the artistic portrayal of woman with their tresses flowing free represented a kind of back-to-nature aesthetic, a fetishising of the body, the long locks relishing a kind of originary femininity and sensuality. Perhaps also a wildness, a breaking forth from repressive societal values – the kind of constructed femininity that kept women as the domestic ‘angels of the house’. Think of the young Cathy in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights (1847), her hair streaming behind her as she gallantly trails the ‘savage’ Heathcliff over the hillsides, or the iconography of the ‘fallen woman’ as depicted in Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Pre-Raphaelite paintings. Women who did not look in the mirror and reflect back the pale perfection of the chaste Victorian angel, but positively glowed with their own matter - their glorious hair – their sensuality. There is something in that: the glorious feeling of standing on a cliff edge, letting the wind whip your hair across your face and fill it with billowing energy. Just don’t try it when you’re trying to eat ice cream.

Today, like everything else long hair has been sucked into the commercial imperative. Perhaps that is why long hair has been associated with anti-capitalist and consumerist movements: the lengthy tresses of 1960s hippies, Marx with his wild white beard and mane, the fluffy mop of Che Guevara. Long hair (especially the unkempt dreads of the hippies) was never really a friend of the drone-like demands of the job market. A short sharp haircut symbolises ‘cool’, edginess, the new freedoms enabled by consumption (think of the bobbed Flappers of the 1920s). Advertising impels us to buy products, perfect your femininity, express yourself through a new style; a new cut, spray, or shampoo. ‘The latest hair trends’, the V05 website proclaims, ‘help you express yourself’. Every day is a decision about how one will adorn oneself, about one’s performance; hair becomes a web of possible signifiers, waiting to be decoded by an image-consuming public, or at least by that stranger across the street. Femininity is a performance, but the secrets of self lie in the hair. There is Kim Kardashian, that postmodern queen of the feminine, a patchwork of skin and plastic flesh, of shiny dye and hair extensions. Websites will spend considerable time and space unpicking the details of Kim’s hairstyles, as she shifts chameleon-like from blonde to black to ombre. It seems that still we read a women through the strands of her hair, as if they were lines of text.

authentic flappers!

authentic flappers!

In Greek mythology, the long-haired Sirens were alluring femme fatales who seduced sailors with their bewitching singing, leading them to perish and shipwreck on their islands. The beauty of these long-haired beings is thus inherently linked to danger, a threat to the freedom and power of masculinity. We might make a connection to the emasculating anxiety of becoming trapped in feminised domestic space. We might also make a connection to the contemporary use of the word siren in relation to (often long-haired) actresses: she’s a real screen siren, we say. Again, these sirens are beguiling, but often perilous in luring their spectators into the isolated islands of their cinematic fantasies.

Yet in addition to these chains of mythology, hair at its most basic component is protein: an element of our body which symbolises nurturance and life. Like our hair, we are always changing, growing. If we look after our bodies with sleep, good food and exercise, it shows in the glow of our hair. A quick flick through a photo album will reveal a history of hairstyles, which reflect not only on the (dodgy or not) cultural trends of the period, but also on ourselves. Who we are and were.

My own hair history is a fairly interesting one. I’ve always loved long hair, ever since (perhaps even before) I watched a rented VHS copy of Splash (1984) and decided I wanted to be a mermaid. Refusing my mother’s futile attempts to brush my hair, I went to school with a witchy mane which was only sometimes contained in double, Heidi-like braids. There’s a picture of me at my seventh birthday party, with it all crimped as I grin at the camera, wearing 90s-style Baby-Spice white leggings. It would’ve looked almost cute, if I didn’t have a full-fringe which took over half of my skull. Safe to say I’m not such a fan of primary school photos…

fierce crimping. source: pinterest

fierce crimping. source: pinterest

At least I earned the comparisons I (still) get to Hermione from Harry Potter (and not just through the geekery department). Kids at school would ask me if I ever bothered to straighten my hair (or at least brush it, one girl sighed) – this was back when everyone had to wear their hair poker-straight and smooth as if it had been recently ironed, Bridget Jones style. All that static flattened out; everyone a clone. You could almost smell the whiff of burnt heat spray as the other girls glided past. I wanted GHD straighteners for so long, that by the time I got them (a joint present for me and my brother, who was then going through his wee 12-year-old emo phase), I quite liked my hair a bit wavy or curly. I still have and use that same pair of trusty straighteners, incidentally.

Hair was always a contentious issue in my schooldays. The P.E. teacher would warn us every week that if we didn’t have it tied up in class, we’d be forced to wear rubber bands to pull it back. I’d always imagine the excruciating sensation of pulling a rubber band out a ponytail (along with half of my hair), every nerve searing with dread. By the time I was thirteen my hair was pretty long and for Halloween I bought some of that wonderful Stargazer semi-permanent dye and made a half-successful job of my hair. I think I got that sort of ethereal/faerie/cyborg look, as I dyed the top half pink and the bottom half blue, and my bad dyeing skills meant I actually got quite a cool ombre effect as the shades blended into each other. I wasn’t so good at clearing up the spattered mess of the bathroom, which resembled a mediocre Jackson Pollock painting by the time I was finished.

Me with pink hair for the Halloween Disco...and a Carrick Academy tie.

Me with pink hair for the Halloween Disco…and a Carrick Academy tie.

Oh, and with said blue dye I also did my brother’s hair once. My friend and I bought him some cheap permanent blonde stuff from Semi-Chem, thinking that because his hair was so naturally dark it would need a bleached out base. I didn’t think the blonde would do much at all, maybe only lighten the brown a bit. Somehow, however, it worked a treat and he had the most, um, skunk-like streaks of yellow in his hair. Diligently, we applied the blue dye, forbidding him to look in the mirror until it was finished. With everything all rinsed out, I suppose he looked more like Sonic the Hedgehog than the Billie Joe Armstrong look he was probably going for. It also didn’t help much that I also let my friend cut his hair in the Debenham’s family toilets (while I sipped warm wine mixed with whisky from a plastic sports bottle – classay!), leaving chunks of it over the floor like it was the detritus of some old, innocent self. After a few week’s of swimming lessons, the chlorine made the blue bleed out into a measly green, and he’ll probably never forgive me for that.

The best hair I ever had was platinum blonde. I loved it so much. I guess it was my failed scene-kid phase, when I wanted hair that was long and spiky and backcombed like a rat’s nest, a white canvas to set off my black liner and neon eyeshadow. The bleach process took over three hours for the hairdresser to do, and probably cost all my birthday money and a month or so’s worth of EMA, but it was worth it. I was born a bonnie wee blonde, but cursed with the family trait of having this fade. Having bright blonde hair makes you literally dazzle. Anita Loos was the first to say that ‘gentleman prefer blondes’, and it’s become an adage that blondes have more fun. I don’t know about all that, but you do feel like you’ve become some diamond in a sea of dull, radiating a new light. It fades though. The roots cut in like black leeches and the strands dry out like straw. You get bored. I let the blonde grow out and kept the tips as a kind of proto-ombre (I swear I got there before Alexa Chung et al), which remained as a kind of limp homage to my teen years pretty much until about a year ago, when I went the whole way with the brunette thing.

blonde tips!

blonde tips!

blonde tips again!

blonde tips again!

the blonde days...

on holiday in Italy…

looking blonde and melancholy

me all blonde and melancholy

And now I just wished I was ginger, or at least half ginger. That’s my plan now: gradually get more ginger. There’s something special about ginger hair; the way people try to hide it with lovely euphemisms – strawberry blonde - the way it’s linked to a fresh freckled face, or strange stereotypes (ginger people don’t have souls, I’ve been told). Its Celtic connotations. I want the amber and russet tones of Pre-Raphaelite tresses, that look gorgeous in autumn. It’s a sort of long term life plan, but probably achievable, although it’s one of the hardest colours to get right. You could end up with some cat-vomit orange, or a lustreless red, if you’re not precise with your dye. Yeah, I’ll do it gradually. It took me a while to get my hair as long and strong as it is now, so in spite of that saying ‘it’s hair: it’ll grow back’, I’m not risking my mane anytime soon.

Lily Cole in all her gorgeousness for Vogue Italia (source: pinterest)

Lily Cole in all her gorgeousness for Vogue Italia (source: pinterest)

The best hair colour and freckles ever. source: pinterest

The best hair colour and freckles ever. source: pinterest

Sure, I love the idea of hair makeovers. Get several inches lopped off and highlights put in and maybe an undercut. It looks cool on loads of people. But I’m definitely one of those strange souls who finds their hair a total comfort blanket, a scarf in the winter, something to chew on idly when I’m staring at a computer screen. I like being able to hide my face in awkward situations, or conceal the fact that I’ve made no effort with my makeup. It becomes a kind of signature, and people remember you by your hair. It would be hard to lose that, like shedding a self.

However, I’m not denying that long hair, rich with sensuous mythology though it is, isn’t a proper pain in the arse. The brushing, painful detangling, the half-hour plus hair-washing, the problem of it getting stuck in the door when you’re trying to clean the microwave. How to wear it for work; nobody wants a spaghetti strand of hair in their £18 steak. You do come up with a good routine though and it becomes manageable. I promise, it’s worth it.

Desire, jealousy, strength – all things long hair represents in myth. Sure, everyone has bad hair days, but maybe a bad hair day with long hair is more a ‘I just came out of the ocean’ look rather than ‘I just woke up’. Long live the mermaids.

meee 2014

meee 2014

Long hair-care tips:

  • Wash as little as possible. I wash about once a week with a teaspoon of shampoo and a heap of conditioner.
  • Good diet! Eat all your greens: kale, spinach, celery, avocado and broccoli are best.
  • Coconut oil: heat some up and slather your hair in it and leave overnight for a nourishing hot oil treatment.
  • Buy a tangle-teezer and make your life 50 x easier.
  • Try to sleep with it in a braid.
  • Wash it in the coldest water you can stand, and only start to blow dry it when it’s about 80% dry, so it’s getting less heat damage.
  • Soft scrunchies are better than harsh bands!
  • Give yourself or get someone else to give you regular almond oil scalp massages. A splash of peppermint oil mixed in also stimulates growth.
  • Regular trims will not make it grow longer (myth myth myth!) but obviously keep your ends in good shape.
  • Try using colour-depositing shampoos and conditioners as a less damaging colour upkeep as opposed to layering up permanent dye. Henna can also be good, although it doesn’t ever wash out, so be careful and do a strand test.
a drawing I did of 'scene hair' me. (oh god)

a drawing I did of ‘scene hair’ me. (oh god)

In Defence of The Archers

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I have a confession to make: I am a twenty-one year old university student who listens to The Archers. You know The Archers, right? That stuffy old show on Radio 4 about farming that your gran sometimes puts on when she does the gardening? Well, I promise you that there’s more to the show than that irritating theme tune which is as intrinsic to Radio 4 as John Humphreys, Women’s Hour or Desert Island Discs. I’d like to explain why I like The Archers, and contest that it isn’t stuffy, boring or dated, but rather an intriguing slice of rural escapism that is worth listening to for the mere thirteen minutes it takes out of your day. Sure, I started listening initially as a silly form of procrastination, but I was quickly hooked and now listening to the show is shamelessly part of my everyday routine.

Its tagline has changed from the somewhat patronising ‘an everyday story of country folk’, to ‘contemporary drama in a rural setting’. These days, ‘folk’ has slightly derogatory connotations, evoking ideas of ‘simple’ people living in a rose-tinted vision of twee village life. ‘Folks’ has a somewhat working-class, ruffian ‘Otherness’ to it, lending the term to a usage of inclusion or exclusion. There is also the more American semantics of the term, which has become embroiled in much political rhetoric, whereby ‘folks’ names a group of people spoken of negatively, or at least in terms of Otherness; as Liesl Schillinger (2014) relates:

Back in August, the [American] President had regretted the excesses of the CIA toward yet another group in the aftermath of 9/11, when he said, “We tortured some folks”; while, several years before, he had denounced domestic fearmongers who demonized his healthcare plan, because “some of the same folks who are spreading these tall tales have fought against Medicare in the past.” The “folks” President Obama speaks of often have a negative or alien aura, a quality of “them,” not “us.” They are terrorists or armed militants, hard-hearted ideologues or benighted unfortunates. This is new.

The folks of The Archers are generally not terrorists or rightwing opponents to Obamacare, but characters deserving of empathy and intrigue in their own right. They are no longer parodies or exaggerated exemplars of ‘country life’. What’s more, the show has its own political and sociological structure: a class system that ranges from fieldwork to managing hotels, age differences, cultural conflicts, economic interests and so on. There are the middle-class characters (the farm-owners, those that have inherited property and business – the Archers themselves), the nouveau riche, the business owners, the farmers, the tycoons that want to build a bypass through the beautiful fields, the cooks, the posh-mums, the drinkers – the, ahem, Scottish character Jazzer (a category of his own) – who would give any edgy ‘contemporary drama’ a run for his money. I mean, just look at his character profile on The Archers’ BBC website:

In wilder times he’s been known to steal cars, grow cannabis and abuse ketamine, but in recent years he’s shaped up, helping out with Tom Archer’s pigs and Mike Tucker’s milk round.

In fact he’s turned the latter into something of an adventure, befriending one or two of his clients rather too readily. Commitment is not in his dictionary, as many Borsetshire women have discovered.

▪Likes – Music, women, illegal substances

▪Dislikes – Authority, healthy food, spiders

▪Highs – A passionate one-night-only with Fallon Rogers, whom he quietly adores

▪Lows – Nearly killing himself with ketamine

Nearly killing himself with ketamine. Well, that’s not a bland old story about sheep escaping or knitting competitions. In fact, the show enacts a careful balance between the weighty yet more banal issues of farming life (the rise in milk prices, methods of pig farming, village fetes and so on) and the meaty drama – extra-marital affairs, interracial relationships, suicide, sex, illness, crime (including arson, drug-dealing and diamond smuggling), business problems, familial conflicts, the joy of enterprise, childbirth, death. The problem of naming children: that amusing storyline where Lynda is sceptical of posh-lady Leonie’s decision to name her child ‘Mowgli’.

Of course, Jazzer is a pretty much reformed character now, enjoying his sessions at the local pub but working hard for other farmers, but there are plenty of other dramas running through the show. For instance, the other week, we got the show’s take on intergenerational conflicts within feminism. When Helen Archer decides she wants to quit her job running Borsetshire Blue Cheese and become a full-time mum, her mother Pat scolds her for casting aside the opportunities that her generation of feminists created. Why would you want to go back to the 1950s, going bored out of your mind? she asks her daughter. Helen insists it is a choice she – not her fiancé Rob – made, but there is something sinister about this whole situation. Lunch ready on the table for him coming home, shelves sparkling after careful dusting and some flamboyant dinner on the table in the evening. Rob’s crooning voice praising it all, urging her with that underlying patronisation to ‘take a break’ from her hard work. Little Henry, the son, lapping it all up. It’s a thought experiment for contemporary debates within feminism, a storyline that explores a real (albeit predominantly middle class) dilemma between finding childcare and returning to work or being a full-time mum. It will be interesting to see where it goes: will Helen continue enjoying this domestic bliss, or will she go mad with boredom, fall back into identity crisis and her eating-disorder and fall out with Rob with all the wrath of Simone de Beauvoir? Time will tell.

The sexual politics of Ambridge also includes the storyline of Elizabeth and Roy’s affair. Roy had been working for her at Lower Loxley, helping her make the ‘Loxfest’ music festival a success, and generally assisting with the business. But when he fell desperately in love with her, and they slept together twice at two music festivals, things got a bit entangled. I mean, he’s married to Hayley and they have two kids. Soon, Elizabeth’s son Freddie started to catch on, and there was all this Eastenders business about him finding a heart-shaped locket Roy had meant to give to Elizabeth and so on. Freddie went all emo, insulting his mother and locking himself in his room, blasting Smells Like Teen Spirit (I love the show’s representation of teenage angst, I really do). So what happened? Elizabeth sacked Roy because she wanted it to end, and Roy was forced to tell Hayley, his wife. The whole affair has become a dominant, listener-baiting storyline, which provides an insightful representation of the effects of marriage breakup on children. There is something quite visceral about Phoebe (Roy and Hayley’s daughter) and her reaction to finding out from Freddie; she starts to completely ignore or else be really mean to her dad, she runs away to stay at her gran’s, she has general overemotional outbursts. You end up feeling sorry for everyone. Even in its short broadcast time, The Archers gets it right, showing all sides and all motivations. No one is a blanket ‘evil’ character, except perhaps Justin Elliott, CEO of Venture Capitalists Damara, who is entangled in the apocalyptic bypass plans. Indeed, many of the characters in the #SaveAmbridge campaign have a personal vendetta against the man. The show itself, however, reveals all sides of the debate, and it’s an education in town planning, enterprise, social geography as well as ‘everyday country life’.

Of course, The Archers in recent years has been subject to certain controversies, not least for its ‘sexed up’ story-lines, which cost them a few thousand viewers back in 2012. Yet I feel the show balances the odd melodrama with sufficient everyday detail. It’s important to represent storylines about for example, Pat and Tony selling their cattle herd, and young Freddie finding his farmer feet, but the odd marital breakdown, court appearance or sexual awakening doesn’t go amiss in twenty-first century drama. There was even (for a while), a la Hollyoaks, ‘Ambridge Extra’, a spinoff on Radio 4 Extra, which focused on the lives of younger Ambridge characters. Well, there were more affairs and a business trip to Russia where Matt Crawford got tangled with the Mafia and ended up sleeping rough. A far cry from the pleasant bleats of sheep. While adding a bit of intrigue, Ambridge Extra only ran for five series before it was axed. Perhaps it was all just a bit too racy for ‘the common listener’. Or maybe it was just that not enough traditional listeners knew how to access it online (since BBC 4 Extra is a digital channel, unlike Radio 4).

There is, furthermore, something a bit postmodern about The Archers. For one thing, it creates an intriguing blur between fact and fiction, often edited last minute to include contemporary real life events as they unfold. For example, the show portrayed reactions to 9/11, the badger cull, the foot and mouth crisis, the London bombings. It corresponds roughly to the progression of real time, so that Christmas comes in Ambridge when Christmas comes in, well, the World Itself. This is one of the biggest appeals for me: the way seasonal changes and events play out in a fictional alterreality, so that I can hear about lambing and cropping and horse riding and so on even while I’m in the city. A lot of my school friends were farmers, so there’s also a bit of nostalgia there too. Perhaps for other listeners, it’s a certain curiosity about what life is like in the farming world, and as we have seen, The Archers does not paint an idyllic utopia of organic food and harmonious living. Like some Biblical fable, there are the floods, fires and diseases too.

Moreover, the show even pulls in real celebrities for cameo appearances. The summer season in Ambridge was perhaps best encapsulated by the climactic Loxfest (which was wracked with drama when the headline act were pulled out following sexual assault charges to the lead singer). Heroically, The Pet Shop Boys (the actual Pet Shop Boys!) appeared to fill in the missing headline slot, chatting away to David Sedaris and Lynda Snell backstage in a hilarious celeb moment. Then there was the culmination of all things twee and middle-class in Ambridge, when Kirsty Allsopp appeared to open the annual village fete. With Olympic fever hanging over the town, Sir Bradley Wiggins helped out at the Sport Relief Rough and Tumble Challenge (incidentally, in true Archers style, Bradley had to witness Ian punching Rob at said event). The celeb appearances add to the strange reality of the show, existing as it does in a kind of Austen-esque ‘made-up but real’ village and province. Radio drama, as a form, also involves the listener a lot more in producing meaning than say, television soap operas do. For one, you have to imagine the events playing out in your head, and so there is always that extra level of interpretation involved. The snappy but daily appearance of the show also facilitates ongoing Twitter conversations, where users’ comments often provide vital feedback for the show’s producers, who care about what people want out of the drama. Listeners get involved even more directly by playing out the show’s storylines; there is, for example, a Twitter account for the campaign to save Ambridge from commercial development (see @SAVEAmbridge).

the black sheep of contemporary drama?

the black sheep of contemporary drama?

And I’m glad that The Archers gets more podcast downloads than the likes of Radio 1’s Scott Mills (cough, crap chart music, cough). It shows that sometimes, what people want is a quick-fix of juicy drama but also the escapism and emotional provocation it provides. The Archers is like an on-going collection of flash fictions, weaving together a rhizomatic assemblage of over 60 characters whose presence infects one another’s storylines and transforms our vision of the village through complex and engaging storylines. In our digital age, the short slice of drama that the show offers is perfect listening, and you can download the episodes as podcasts or wait for the 75-minute omnibus edition on Sundays. I think we are getting a bit of a rural revival lately, with the likes of Jack Thorne’s crime drama Glue fuelling this interest in the dramatic landscapes of the countryside. Glue, a somewhat slow-burning series, offers at least beautiful camera work and acclaimed representation of the Romani community, as well as everyday elements of farm-life – the early mornings, the milkings. Yes, there are elements of D. H. Lawrence style romanticising (the racy hay-bail sex scene, for instance) but there is also gritty reality, the criminal undertones of the local community. Where I’m from, the ‘Young Farmer’s Association’ was associated predominantly with Saturday night escapades of binge-drinking, Ceilidh dancing and alfresco lovemaking (albeit also bridge-playing and flower-arranging contests), so maybe all this racy rural drama isn’t entirely inaccurate. Either way, I hope I’ve persuaded you to give The Archers a go. It’s less than 15 minutes, after all.

***

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b006qpgr

http://www.channel4.com/programmes/glue/4od

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/tvandradio/10423564/The-Archers-is-always-on-the-cutting-edge-new-editor-insists.html

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/tvandradio/11162615/Archers-fans-not-put-off-by-racy-storylines.html

http://www.theguardian.com/media/2014/oct/15/the-archers-bbc-podcast-list-radio-4

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Archers

Schillinger, Lisa, 2014. ‘“Hi, Folks.”: How a once-friendly, neighbourly word – “folks” – became a quiet sort of insult’ in Matter, Available at: <https://medium.com/matter/how-a-once-friendly-neighborly-word-folks-became-a-quiet-sort-of-insult-c54e05b6a069> [Accessed 19.10.14].